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Quintet in D for guitar and string

September 25, 2016: Jason Vieaux, guitar; Escher String Quartet

Boccherini achieved widespread recognition in his day both as a cellist and as an extremely prolific composer, primarily of chamber music. He wrote more than 100 string quintets, close to 100 string quartets, and some 150 other chamber works, including more than thirty cello sonatas. He became especially celebrated for his string quintets in the two-violin, viola, two-cello configuration, contributing more to the genre than any other composer in history. Many of them were written while he served as “virtuoso of the chamber and composer of music” at the Aranjuez court of the Infante Don Luis, younger brother of the king of Spain. The quintets were to be played by a court quartet made up of the Font family, father and three sons, plus Boccherini himself.

The renown Boccherini enjoyed in his prime is attested to by the remarks of the typically cautious Charles Burney, famed eighteenth-century historian, who rated him “among the greatest masters who have ever written for the violin or violoncello,” placing him second only to Haydn. The taste for Boccherini’s elegant, galant style waned, however, and he died in Madrid in poverty.

Many gaps exist in our knowledge of Boccherini’s life and works, made worse by the destruction of many of his manuscripts and his own thematic catalog in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed a periodic resurgence of interest in his music: Gérard’s thematic catalog was published in 1969, and hence the “G.” in the listings of the composer’s works. A complete edition was begun in the 1970s, and a manuscript containing eighteen cello sonatas—three not known since Boccerini’s time—was discovered in 1982; yet most of his music awaits rediscovery.

Boccherini mentioned in a letter to the publisher Pleyel in December 1798 that he had just completed six guitar quintets—guitar with string quartet—for the Marquis de Bénavent, for which the guitar-playing Marquis apparently paid the composer 100 francs apiece. These Quintets were most likely those that survive in a copy made in the 1820s by François de Fossa, a military man who was also a talented guitarist and composer. The present D major Quintet, which is fourth in that collection, is the only one of the six that also survives in another manuscript. It was published together with two other guitar quintets (different than those for the Marquis) in 1925 in Leipzig. The Marquis’s Quintets were not published until 1973, after the enterprising Ruggero Chiesa located them in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Following a common practice of the period, Boccherini adapted material from earlier sources to fulfill the Marquis’s commission. Thus he transcribed the Pastorale and the Allegro maestoso of the D major Guitar Quintet from the first two movements of a 1771 String Quintet in the same key (G. 270, op. 12, no. 6); the Grave assai and the colorful Fandango he borrowed from the opening of another D major String Quintet (G. 341, op. 50, no. 2), written in 1788. Together these movements make a stellar guitar quintet—the last movement, the Fandango, is perhaps even more fitting with guitar as one of the instruments rather than a second cello as in the original.

The Pastorale is a lovely movement, with the sweetness of parallel thirds and the lilting rhythms in 6/8 meter that one would expect from the genre. Characteristic of all Boccherini’s guitar quintets, the guitar alternates between passages in which it takes a leading role and passages in which it accompanies the bowed strings. The cello is particularly featured in the Allegro maestoso, at the outset and later in its highest register, reminding us of Boccherini’s prowess as a cellist. The Grave assai serves as the slow introduction to the crowning Fandango, which begins softly enough, but erupts into a high-spirited affair. Boccherini even adds actual castanets to the accompaniment as in the folk-dance models of his adopted country of Spain.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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